At the end of 2021, Bangkok had 5.52 million residents – 53% of whom (2.93 million) are women. Having just celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, and with the Bangkok gubernatorial election due in the next few months, let’s take a look at the lives and wellbeing of women in the Thai capital.
According to the 2020 Mental Health (Happiness) Survey by the National Statistical Office (NSO), people in Bangkok scored lower in terms of their mental wellbeing (33.28) than the national average (33.53). And in Bangkok, women scored lower than men.
As the results have been similar since 2015, women in Bangkok seem to be having a tougher time than men.
Their surroundings may be partly responsible. Bangkok has notoriously congested traffic – a result of town planning and infrastructure development – and this can be even more stressful for those who have to rely on public transport alone.
Past urban development has focused on expanding roads for automobiles in order to address the chronic traffic jams. Sadly, this did nothing to solve the problem, and has been criticised for contributing to even more congestion.
Meanwhile, public transportation and walkways have been left in rather poor condition. The Urban Design and Development Center at Chulalongkorn University (UDDC) described Bangkok as a city that does not allow people to walk, something that has a more negative impact on women.
According to the Department of Land Transport, as of February 2022, there have been a total of 4.6 million driving licences (this includes personal cars, motorcycles, and other types of automobile) issued in Bangkok. Only 1.5 million of them, or around 32%, were issued to women.
This indicates that women have less access to personal motor vehicles, and thus are more dependent on public transport and walking when moving around the city. Unfortunately, these two modes of transport in the city are not very safe for women.
As a result, infrastructure plays a role in limiting women’s physical mobility and ability to travel. The 2019 Thailand Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS 2019) published by the NSO revealed that only 71.8% of women in Bangkok feel “safe” when walking alone in their neighbourhood at night, compared to 84.2% of men. The ratio of women in Bangkok who answered that they feel “very safe” is also lower than the national average (7% in Bangkok and 13.8% nationwide).
This corresponds to the findings by the Safe Cities for Women Campaign in 2017, which encouraged the people in Bangkok to pin locations that have a high risk of sexual harassment.
They received more than 600 pins on their map, and 39% of these are walkways and alleys. The most common characteristics of these locations are that they are poorly maintained, badly lit and secluded.
The campaign also conducted a survey and found that 45% of female respondents had experienced sexual harassment on public transport in Bangkok, half of them within the previous 12 months.
Furthermore, women in general tend to move around the city in different ways than men.
As the caretaker of certain family members, regardless of their employment status, women often have to run errands for the household such as dropping the kids at schools, taking elderly parents to hospital, or going to the market to buy food.
On the contrary, men tend to have a simple commuting pattern from home to office. Curiously, public transportation fares in Bangkok seem to be designed around these patterns of movement (I would wager, by men), for example, charging people for every ride they take, so the more stops you make, the more you pay.
For example, taking the BTS directly from Saphan Mai to Siam would set you back 44 baht. But if you had to drop your toddler at a nursery in Soi Ari on the way there, you would pay 26 baht when getting off at Soi Ari, and then another 33 baht from Soi Ari to Siam. That would be 15 baht more expensive.
So not only is public transport in Bangkok is less safe for women, but also pricier. The MICS 2019 survey revealed that 94.8% of women in Bangkok have health insurance, which is also slightly lower than the national average (97.7%).
However, the ratio of women who have healthcare coverage under the social security scheme is 53.7%, which is higher than women in other regions. This suggests that women in Bangkok have more access to formal employment than women elsewhere in the country.
Despite that, the ratio for men in Bangkok still higher (54.5%), and this is not likely due to their educational qualifications. The MICS 2019 survey found that the ratio of women aged 15-49 years old in the capital who are educated beyond the level of high school is 46.6%, compared to just 40.4% of men.
It is also not likely due to a lack of interest. A 2021 Skill Development Survey by the NSO revealed that from 2017-2021, more women in Bangkok upgraded their skills than men. These findings suggest women may face discrimination when it comes to employment in Bangkok.
One of the obstacles working women face is pregnancy. The age considered safest for getting pregnant is 20-35 years old, which coincides with the best time to get promoted higher up the ladder in people’s careers.
Without the support of other family members, many women can find balancing work and family life extremely difficult. It is no surprise that the number of newborns in Bangkok is in continual decline. In 2020, there were 70,973 babies born in the city, down 8.2% from the previous year.
For almost 50 years, Bangkok has not had a women governor. This might be one of the reasons why the city has not been responding well to the demands of women.
However, a gender-sensitive urban development policy can be delivered by a governor of any gender. One important requirement is that Bangkok has to first “see” its female population, by having enough gender-aggregated data to cover their wellbeing.
Developing the city with a sharper focus on women will allow policy makers to address other vulnerable groups in society, such as children and the elderly, who are dependent on women as caretakers of the family.
After all, a city for women can be a city for all.
Article By Boonwara Sumano, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).
First Published: Bangkok Post on 16 MAR 2022
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